It seems like an eternity ago when Isaiah Thomas led the Boston Celtics to a dramatic seven game victory over the Wizards in the eastern conference semifinals — for both sides. Indeed, not much has gone right for the Wizards since then, but what happened to Thomas, once one of the league’s most exciting scorers, in the meantime?
It is hard to give a grade other than “incomplete” here, so let’s go further back in time.
After their run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics looked to take the next step and use those Brooklyn picks before the Nets became respectable again. All of NBA twitter was wondering aloud about the possibilities. Gordon Hayward? Paul George? Jimmy Butler? We all expected the C’s to land a star wing, but no one knew they were shopping for a point guard too. Not long after inking Hayward — whose recruitment Thomas had a major hand in — to a max contract, Boston sent Thomas, Jae Crowder, and one of the Nets’ picks (that became Collin Sexton) to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving.
It felt like a betrayal at the time — Thomas had just played through a serious hip injury, and the death of his sister to lead the team on its deepest playoff run since the Pierce-Garnett-Allen big three days — and… not a great basketball move. Trading an all-star point guard, a rotation two-way wing and a valuable draft pick for an all-star point guard seemed puzzling at the time. But it became clear, once Thomas finally got on the court for the Cavs, that he was not close to the same after that injury. All told, he’s yet to appear in 50 NBA games across two seasons (and three teams) since coming back that year.
When he signed with the Nuggets last summer, he hoped he would get a chance to rebuild his value under a coach that knew him well — Michael Malone coached him during his best season in Sacramento — but the emergence of Monte Morris shut him out of the rotation after 15 appearances. This season, we may get our first good look at a healthy (well, besides that thumb injury) Thomas since his MVP candidacy.
For all the question marks, that’s pretty tantalizing.
Strengths / Weaknesses
Again, it is difficult to answer this question — we have no idea which Thomas we are getting.
Thomas has scored from the minute he has been in the league, compensating for lack of size with quickness and shot creation that rivaled anyone in the league. He was a 20-points-per-game scorer on a Sacramento team with Boogie Cousins and prime Rudy Gay — not exactly a situation with many touches to go around.
But, save for his final year in Boston, Thomas has never been especially efficient — a deficiency massively magnified by his nagging injuries. Other than that season, he’s only shot above 45% from the field once — his last year in Sacramento. During his first full season in Boston, while an All-Star in the east, he shot only 42% from the field. He’s never broken 39% from three over a full season. If he is at all athletically compromised, those numbers don’t often preclude aging gracefully. Though, a smaller role compared to what he filled in Boston (and what he attempted to fill in Cleveland) might help him become more efficient as a shooter. With Bradley Beal doing most of the heavy lifting on offense, Thomas could excel as an off-ball scorer — a skill he flashed in Boston playing next to Al Horford.
Thomas has never developed into a great facilitator, so he will likely need to play with one of Beal or Troy Brown Jr. to have someone run the offense and make up for his lack of size. But given Thomas’s skillset at this point in his career, that’s probably his best chance to make some money next summer.
8.2 PPG / 3 AST / 41/33/86 Shooting Splits
I’m going conservative here — it’s hard to say there’s a breakthrough on the horizon, but I’d love to be wrong. If Thomas even returns to being a consistent 15 PPG scorer, I could see the Wizards challenging for the 8 or (gasp) the 7 seed in the east. If there’s a true x-factor on this roster, it’s Thomas.